Tag: video conferencing platforms

Zoom to provide privacy notifications for video conferences

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Zoom to introduce privacy disclosure for enhanced functionalities during a video conference

Zoom

Zoom Rolls Out In-Product Privacy Notifications – Zoom Blog

In-Product Privacy Notifications – Zoom Help Center (Detailed Resource)

Previous Coverage on videoconferencing platform security

A call to attention now exists regarding videoconferencing platform security

My Comments

As the COVID-19 coronavirus plague had us homebound and staying indoors, we were making increased use of Zoom and similar multi-party video conference software for work, education and social needs. This included an increased amount of telemedicine taking place where people were engaging with their doctors, psychologists and other specialists using this technology.

Thus increased ubiquity of multi-party videoconferencing raised concerns about data-security, user-privacy and business-confidentiality implications with this technology. This was due to situations like business videoconference platforms being used for personal videoconferencing and vice versa. In some cases it was about videoconferencing platforms not being fit for purpose due to gaping holes in the various platforms’ security and privacy setup along with the difficult user interfaces that some of these platforms offered.

During August 2020, the public data-protection authorities in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Switzerland and the UK called this out as a serious issue through the form of open letters to the various popular videoconferencing platforms. There has been some improvement taking place with some platforms like Zoom implementing end-to-end encryption, Zoom implementing improved meeting-control facilities and some client software for the various platforms offering privacy features like defocusing backgrounds.

Zoom has now answered the call for transparency regarding user privacy by notifying all the participants in a multi-party videoconference about who can save or share content out of the videoconference. This comes in to play with particular features and apps like recording, transcription, polls and Q&A functionality. It will also notify others if someone is running a Zoom enhanced-functionality app that may compromise other users’ privacy.

There is also the issue of alerting users about who the account owner is in relation to these privacy issues. For corporate or education accounts, this would be the business or educational institution who set up the account. But most of us who operate our personal Zoom accounts would have the accounts in our name.

Personally, I would also like to have the option to know about data-sovereignty information for corporate, education or similar accounts. This can be important if Zoom supports on-premises data storage or establishes “data-trustee” relationships with other telco or IT companies and uses this as a means to assure proper user privacy, business confidentiality and data sovereignty. A good example of this could be the European public data cloud that Germany and France are wanting to set up to compute with American and Chinese offerings while supporting European values.

Another issue is how this will come about during a video conference where the user is operating their session full-screen with the typical tile-up view but not using the enhanced-functionality features. Could this be like with Websites that pop up a consent notification disclosing what cookies or similar features are taking place when one uses the Website for the first time or moves to other pages?

It will be delivered as part of the latest updates for Zoom client software across all the platforms. This may also be a feature that will have to come about for other popular videoconferencing platforms like Microsoft Teams or Skype as a way to assure users of their conversation privacy and business confidentiality.

Zoom even makes it easier to deal with Zoombombing incidents

Article

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Zoom to give more control to meeting hosts

How to stop a Zoombombing | Lifehacker

From the horse’s mouth

Zoom

3 New Ways We’re Combatting Meeting Disruptions (Blog Post)

My Comments

During the COVID-19 pandemic causing us to work or study from home, we have been seeing increased use of videoconferencing platforms like Zoom.

It has led to the convergence of business and personal use of popular multiparty videoconferencing platforms; be it business platforms of the Zoom and Microsoft Teams ilk serving personal, social and community needs; or personal platforms like Skype and WhatsApp being used for business use. This is more so with small businesses, community organisations and the like who don’t have their own IT team to manage this software. The software developers even support this convergence through adding “personal and social” features to business users that also gain free social-user tiers or adding business features to personal platforms.

But this has brought along its fair share of miscreants. A key example of this is “Zoombombing” where these miscreants join a Zoom meeting in order to disrupt it. This manifests in disruptive comments being put in to the meeting or at worst all sorts of filth unfit for the office or family home appearing on our screens. Infact there have been a significant number of high-profile Zoom virtual events disrupted that way and a significant number of governments have encompassed this phenomenon as part of raising questions about videoconferencing platform security.

This has been facilitated by Zoom and similar business videoconferencing platforms allowing people to join a videoconference by clicking on a meeting-specific URL This is compared to Skype, Viber, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and similar personal videoconferencing platforms operating on an in-platform invitation protocol when joining these meetings.

But these Weblinks bave been posted on the Social Web for every man and his dog to see. There have been some online forums that have been hurriedly set up for people to solicit others to disrupt online meetings.

Zoom recently took action by requiring the use of meeting passwords and waiting-room setups and operating with that by default. As well meeting hosts and participants have been encourage not to place meeting URLs and passwords on any part of the Web open to the public. Rather they are to send the link via email or instant messaging. As well, they are encouraged to send the password under separate cover.

They also have the ability to lock the meeting so no further attendees can come in, which is good if the meeting is based around known attendees. There is also the ability for the host to control resource-sharing and remote-control functionality that Zoom offers. Let’s not forget that they also added meeting-wide end-to-end encryption for increasingly-secure meetings.

But Zoom has taken further action by offering meeting hosts more tools to control their meeting, a feature available to all client software and to all user classes whether free or paid.

There is the ability for the Zoom meeting host to pause the meeting. Once this is invoked, no activity can take place during the meeting including in any breakout rooms that the meeting has spawned. They also have the ability to report the meeting to Zoom’s platform=wide security team and to selectively enable each meeting feature. They can also report users to Zoom’s platform security team, which allows them to file the report and give the disruptive user the royal order of the boot from that meeting.

Another feature that has been introduced thanks to the “join by URL” method that Zoom supports is for meeting hosts to be alerted if their meeting is at risk of disruption. Zoom facilitates this using a Webcrawler that hunts for meeting URLs on the public Web and alerts the meeting host if their meeting’s URL is posted there such as being on the Social Web. Here, they are given the opportunity to change the URL to deflect any potential Zoombomb attempts.

But this year has become a key year as far as multiparty videoconferencing is concerned due to our reliance on it. Here, it may be about seeing less differentiation between business-use and personal-use platforms or the definition of a basic feature set that these videoconferencing platforms are meant to have with secure private operation being part of that definition.

Zoom to introduce end-to-end encryption

Articles

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Zoom to provide end-to-end encryption for those video conferences

Zoom end-to-end encryption is finally rolling out next week | Android Authority

Zoom to preview free end-to-end encryption for meetings | ITNews

Zoom Is Adding End-To-End Encryption to Your Endless Meetings | Gizmodo

Zoom finally rolls out end-to-end encryption, but you have to enable it | Mashable

From the horse’s mouth

Zoom

Zoom Rolling Out End-to-End Encryption Offering (Blog Post)

My Comments

Since the COVID-19 coronavirus plague had us housebound even for work or school, we have ended up using videoconferencing platforms more frequently for work, school and social life. The most popular of these platforms ended up being Zoom which effectively became a generic trademark for multiparty videoconferencing.

But the computer press and consumer-privacy regulators identified that most of these videoconferencing platforms had security and user-privacy / company-confidentiality weaknesses. One of these that has beset Zoom was the lack of end-to-end encryption for multiparty videocalls. This ended up being a key issue due to most of us ending using these platforms more frequently and the increased use of Zoom and similar platforms for medical and legal telexonsultations.

Now Zoom, as part of its recent Zoomtopia feature-launch multiparty videoconference, has launched a number of new features for their platform. These include virtual participant layouts similar to what Microsoft Teams is offering.

But the important one here is to facilitate end-to-end encryption during multiparty videoconferences. This will be available across all of Zoom’s user base, whether free or paid. For the first 30 days from next week, it will be a technical preview so they can know of any bugs in the system.

The end-to-end encryption is based around the meeting host rather than Zoom generating the keypairs for the encryption protocol, which would occur as a videoconference is started and as users come on board. It is a feature that Zoom end-users would need to enable at account level and also activate for each meeting they wish to keep secure. That is different from WhatsApp where end-to-end encryption occurs by default and in a hands-off manner.

At the moment, updated native Zoom clients will support the end-to-end encryption – you won’t have support for it on Zoom Web experiences or third-party devices and services that work with Zoom like the smart displays or Facebook’s Portal TV videophone. This situation will be revised as Zoom releases newer APIs and software that answers thsi need.

If a meeting is operating with end-to-end encryption, there will be a green shield with a lock symbol in the upper left corner to indicate that this is the case. They can click on the icon to bring up a verification code and have that confirmed by the meeting host reading it out loud.

Free users will be required to use SMS-based verification when they set up their account for end-to-end encryption. This is a similar user experience to what a lot of online services are doing where there is a mobile phone number as a second factor of authenticity.

At least Zoom is taking steps towards making its multiparty videoconference platform more safe and secure for everyone.

Should videoconference platforms support multiple devices concurrently

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

The idea of a Zoome or similar platform user joining the same videoconferences frp, multiple devices could be considered in some cases

Increasing when we use a videoconferencing platform, we install the client software associated with it on all the computing devices we own. Then we log in to our account associated with that platform so we can join videoconferences from whatever device we have and suits our needs.

But most of these platforms allow a user to use one device at a time to participate in the same videoconference. Zoom extends on this by allowing concurrent use of devices of different types (smartphone, mobile-platform tablet or regular computer) by the same user account on the same conference.

But why support the concurrent use of multiple devices?

There are some use cases where multiple devices used concurrently may come in handy.

Increased user mobility

Dell Inspiron 14 5000 2-in-1 - viewer arrangement at Rydges Melbourne (Locanda)

especially with tablet computers and 2-in-1s located elsewhere

One of these is to assure a high level of mobility while participating in a videoconference. This may be about moving between a smartphone that is in your hand and a tablet or laptop that is at a particular location like your office.

It can also be about joining the same videoconference from other devices that are bound to the same account. This could be about avoiding multiple people crowding around one computing device to participate in a videoconference from their location, which can lead to user discomfort or too many people appearing in one small screen in a “tile-up” view of a multiparty videoconference. Or it can be about some people participating in a videoconference from an appropriate room like a lounge area or den.

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 tablet

like in a kitchen with this Lenovo Yoga Tab Android tablet

Similarly, one or more users at the same location may want to simply participate in the videoconference in a passive way but not be in the presence of others who are actively participating in the same videoconference. This may simply be to monitor the call as it takes place without the others knowing. Or it could be to engage in another activity like preparing food in the kitchen while following the videocall.

As far as devices go, there may be the desire to use a combination of devices that have particular attributes to get the most out of the videocall. For example, it could be about spreading a large videoconference across multiple screens such as having a concurrent “tile-up” view, active speaker and supporting media across three screens.

Or a smartphone could be used for audio-only participation so you can have the comfort of a handheld device while you see the participants and are seen by them on a tablet or regular computer. As well, some users may operate two regular computers like a desktop or large laptop computer along with a secondary laptop or 2-in-1 computer.

Support for other device types by videoconferencing platforms

.. or a smart display like this Google-powered Lenovo smart display

Another key trend is for videoconferencing platforms to support devices that aren’t running desktop-platform or mobile-platform operating systems.

This is exemplified by Zoom providing support for popular smart-display platforms like Amazon Echo Show or Google Smart Display. It is although some of the voice-assistant platforms that offer smart displays do support videocall functionality on platforms own by the voice-assistant platform’s developer or one or more other companies they are partnering with.

Or Google providing streaming-vision support for a Google Meet videoconference to a large-screen TV via Chromecast. It is something that could reinvigorate videoconferencing on smart-TV / set-top box platforms, something I stand for so many people like a whole family or household can participate in a videoconference from one end. This is once factors like accessory Webcams, 10-foot “lean-back” user interfaces and the like are worked out.

It can also extend to the idea of voice-assistant platforms extending this to co-opting a smart speaker and a device equipped with a screen and camera to facilitate a videoconference.  This could be either with you hearing the videoconference via the smart speaker or the display device’s audio subsystem.

What can be done to make this secure for small accounts?

There can be security and privacy issues with this kind of setup with people away from the premises but operating the same account being able to join in a videoconference uninvited. Similarly, a lot of videoconferencing platforms who offer a service especially to consumers may prefer to offer this feature as part of their paid “business-class” service packages.

One way to make this kind of participation secure for a small account would be to use logical-network verification. This is to make sure that all devices are behind the same logical network (subnet) if there is a want for multiple devices to participate from the same account and in the same videoconference. It may not work well with devices having their own modem such as smartphones, tablets or laptops directly connected to mobile broadband or people plugging USB mobile-broadband modems in to their computers. Similarly, it may not work with public-access or guest-access networks that are properly configured to avoid devices discovering each other on the same network.

Similarly, device-level authentication, which could facilitate password-free login can also be used to authenticate the actual devices operated by an account. A business rule could exist to place a limit on the number of devices of any class but operated by the same consumer account able to concurrently join a videoconference at any one time. This could realistically be taken to five devices allowing for the fact that a couple or family may prefer to operate the same account across all the devices owned by the the members of that group, rather than have members maintain individual accounts just bound .

Conclusion

The idea of allowing concurrent multiple-device support for single accounts in a videoconference platform when it comes to videoconference participation is worth considering. This can be about increased mobility or user comfort or to cater towards the use of newer device types in the context of videoconferencing.

Zoom now extends to popular smart-display platforms

Articles

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Zoom video conferences will soon be able to take place on smart displays

Zoom Meetings Coming Soon to Smart Displays | Droid Life

Zoom video calls come to smart displays from Google, Amazon, and Facebook | Android Authority

Zoom expands to every major smart display as coronavirus keeps us home | CNet

From the borse’s mouth

Zoom

Zoom Expands to Smart Displays at Home (Blog Post)

My Comments

Amazon Echo Show in kitchen press picture courtesy of Amazon

.. like the Amazon Echo Show

The COVID-19 coronavirus plague is increasing our use of Zoom as a multiparty videoconferencing platform especially for social and community purposes. This is thanks to measures in place to encourage social distancing and reduce travel to curb the spread of this virus. Zoom’s trademark for this service even ended up as a generic trademark word for a any multiparty videoconference just like one often referred to a common ballpoint pen as a biro.

But Zoom is primarily offered on most regular-computer and mobile-device platforms like Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android. This is because these devices have integrated or accessory Webcams supported by their operating system and can take on software from third-party developers.

JBL Link VIew Press image courtesy of Harman International

… or Google-Assistant devices like this JBL Link View smart display

Recently Zoom tried out the idea of a dedicated videoconferencing appliance in the form of a 27” group videophone that can also be a display screen for a computer, TV set-top box or similar video peripheral. It is similar to previous efforts by smart-TV and video-peripheral vendors to provide Skype support if the device is equipped with an expensive accessory Webcam offered by the manufacturer.

But Zoom took a better step to partner with Google, Amazon and Facebook to integrate their platform in to the Amazon Echo Show smart displays, Facebook Portal smart display and smart displays running the Google Assistant (Home) platform. Here, these devices have the hardware that is needed to make or take videocalls i.e. a camera, microphone, screen and speakers. As well, the three vendors are more supportive of programming these devices to take on additional functionality.

These devices have some sort of videophone functionality built in to them through support for some other videoconference platforms: Skype and Amazon’s IP-telephony platform in the case of Amazon’s Echo Show devices; Google’s Duo and Meet in the case of Google-powered devices; and Facebook Messenger with its Rooms function as well as GoToMeeting, BlueJeans and WebEx in the case of the Facebook Portal. The addition of Zoom doesn’t displace the platform vendor’s own products or products the vendor has already licensed from other partners. As well, it recognises that different people and organisations tend to prefer working with particular videoconference platforms over others.

The Zoom software is engineered to take advantage of what the platforms offer including tying in with the platform’s native calendar function if you have linked your calendar to it, or joining a videoconference at your voice command. In the case of the Facebook device, you can tap the screen to join a meeting. All classes of Zoom account can be bound to these devices so you can use the account paid for by your work or school or a personal one you set up for free for social use.

This function will start to appear on most Facebook Portal devices in September then roll out across all the other smart-display platforms over October and November.

But why allow Zoom and similar videoconferences on a smart display or similar appliance? One reason is to have one device dedicated to the videoconference while you use another device to take notes or read supporting material for business, education or religion use cases. It may also be about the desire for an “appliance-simple” approach for making and taking videocalls, something that may be desired for older users who may find the process of creating or joining a multiparty videoconference daunting. As well, there is the encouragement to use an endpoint device that fits in with where it will be used such as the small smart displays that are typically installed in a kitchen or similar room.

What need to eventually happen is for Zoom and similar multiparty videoconferencing platforms to be part of connected-TV / set-top box platforms typically used for viewing Netflix or similar video-on-demand services on the big-screen TV. This is as long as the TV or set-top box can work with an accessory Webcam. As well, the device has to support multiple videoconferencing platforms, especially the common ones; while each platform has to offer a user interface suitable for 10-foot “lean-back” operation.

Here, such implementations, when done right, can be about the use of a big-screen TV as a group videophone for situations where the whole household participates in a videoconference like the many Zoom-based family or community video “catch-ups”.

A call to attention now exists regarding videoconferencing platform security

Article

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

A call to action is now taking place regarding the data security and user privacy of video conferencing platforms

Privacy watchdogs urge videoconferencing services to boost privacy protections | We Live Security

From the horse’s mouth

Officer Of The Privacy Commissioner Of Canada

Joint statement on global privacy expectations of Video Teleconferencing companies (English / Français)

Press Release (English, Français)

Office Of The Australian Information Commissioner

Global privacy expectations of video teleconference providers – with open letter

Federal Data Protection And Information Commissioner (Switzerland)

Audio And Video Conferencing Systems – Privacy Resource factsheet (English, Français, Deutsch, Italiano)

Open Letter (PDF)

Information Commissioner’s Office (United Kingdom)

Global privacy expectations of video teleconference providers

Open Letter (PDF)

My Comments

Thanks to the COVID-19 coronavirus plague, we are making increased use of various videoconferencing platforms for our work, education, healthcare, religious and social reasons.

This has been facilitated through the use of applications like Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams and HouseParty. It also includes “over-the-top” text-chat and Internet-telephony apps like Apple’s Facetime, Facebook’s Messenger, WhatsApp and Viber for this kind of communication, thanks to them opening up or having established multi-party audio/video conferencing or “party-line” communications facilities.

Security issues have been raised by various experts in the field about these platforms with some finding that there are platforms that aren’t fit for purpose in today’s use cases thanks to gaping holes in the platform’s security and privacy setup. In some cases, the software hasn’t been maintained in a manner as to prevent security risks taking place.

As well, there have been some high-profile “Zoombombing” attacks on video conferences in recent times. This is where inappropriate, usually pornographic, images have been thrown up in to these video conferences to embarrass the participants with one of these occurring during a court hearing and one disrupting an Australian open forum about reenergising tourism.

This has led to the public data-protection and privacy authorities in Australia, Canada, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Switzerland and the United Kingdom writing an open letter to Microsoft, Cisco, Zoom, HouseParty and Google addressing these issues. I also see this relevant to any company who is running a text-based “chat” or similar service that offers group-chatting or party-line functionality or adapts their IP-based one-to-one audio/video telephony platform for multi-party calls.

Some of these issues are very similar to what has been raised over the last 10 years thanks to an increase in our use of online services and cloud computing in our daily lives.This included data security under a highly-mobile computing environment with a heterogeny of computing devices and online services; along with the issue of data sovereignty in a globalised business world.

One of the key issues is data security. This is about having proper data-security safeguards in place such as end-to-end encryption for communications traffic; improved access control like strong passwords, two-factor authentication or modern device-based authentication approaches like device PINs and biometrics.

There will also be the requirement to factor in handling of sensitive data like telehealth appointments between medical/allied-health specialists and their patients. Similarly data security in the context of videoconferencing will also encompass the management of a platform’s abilities to share files, Weblinks, secondary screens and other media beyond the video-audio feed.

As well, a “secure by design and default” approach should prohibit the ability to share resources including screenviews unless the person managing the videoconference gives the go-ahead for the person offering the resource. If there is a resource-preview mechanism, the previews should only be available to the person in charge of the video conference.

Another key issue is user privacy including business confidentiality. There will be a requirement for a videoconferencing platform to have “privacy by design and default”. It is similar to the core data-security operating principle of least privilege. It encompasses strong default access controls along with features like announcing new participants when they join a multi-party video conference; use of waiting rooms, muting the microphone and camera when you join a video conference with you having to deliberately enable them to have your voice and video part of the conference; an option to blur out backgrounds or use substitute backgrounds; use of substitute still images like account avatars in lieu of a video feed when the camera is muted; and the like.

There will also be a requirement to allow businesses to comply with user-privacy obligations like enabling them to seek users’ express consent before participating. It also includes a requirement for the platform to minimise the capture of data to what is necessary to provide the service. That may include things like limiting unnecessary synchronsing of contact lists for example.

Another issue is for the platforms to to “know their audience” or know what kind of users are using their platform. This is for them to properly provide these services in a privacy-focused way. It applies especially to use of the platform by children and vulnerable user groups; or where the platform is being used in a sensitive use setting like education, health or religion.

As well it encompasses where a videoconferencing platform is used or has its data handled within a jurisdiction that doesn’t respect fundamental human rights and civil liberties. This risk will increase more as countries succumb to populist rule and strongman politics and they forget the idea of these rights. In this case, participants face an increased exposure to various risks associated with these jurisdictions especially if the conversation is about a controversial topic or activity or they are a member of a people group targeted by the oppressive regime.

Another issue being raised is transparency and fairness. Here this is about what data is being collected by the platform, how it is being used, whom it is shared with including the jurisdictions they are based in along with why it is being collected. It doesn’t matter whether it is important or not. The transparency about data use within the platform also affects what happens whenever the platform is evolved and the kind of impact any change would have.

The last point is to provide each of the end-users effective control over their experience with the videoconferencing platforms. Here, an organisation or user group may determine that a particular videoconferencing platform like Zoom or Skype is the order of the day for their needs. But the users need to be able to know whether location data is being collected or whether the videoconference is tracking their engagement, or whether it is being recorded or transcribed.

I would add to this letter the issue of the platform’s user-friendliness from provisioning new users through all stages of establishing and managing a videoconference. This is of concern with videoconference platforms being used by young children or older-generation people who have had limited exposure to newer technologies. It also includes efforts to make the platform accessible to all abilities.

This is relevant to the security and user privacy of a videoconferencing platform due to simplifying the ability for the videoconference hosts and participants to maintain effective control of their experience. Here, if a platform’s user interface is difficult to use safely. videoconference hosts and participants will end up opting for insecure setups this making themselves vulnerable.

For example, consistent and less-confusing function icons or colours would be required for the software’s controls; along with proper standardised  “mapping” of controls on hardware devices to particular functions. Or there could be a user-interface option that always exposes the essential call-management controls at the bottom of the user’s screen during a videocall.

This issue has come to my mind due to regularly participating in a Skype videoconference session with my church’s Bible-study group. Most of the members of that group were of older generations who weren’t necessarily technology-literate. Here, I have had to explain what icons to click or tap on to enable the camera or microphone during the videoconference and even was starting it earlier to “walk” participants through using Skype. Here, it would be about calling out buttons on the screen that have particular icons for particular functions like enabling the camera or microphone or selecting the front or back camera on their device.

At least the public-service efforts have come about to raise the consistent security and privacy problems associated with the increased use of videoconferencing software.

Alfaview brings forth a German competitor to the world of videoconferencing

Article – German Language / Deutsche Sprache

Flag of Germany

Germany now yields its own videoconferencing platform

Alfaview: Sichere Videochat-Software aus Deutschland (Alfaview : Secure Videochat Software from Germany) | Computer Bild

From the horse’s mouth

Alfaview

Home Page (English / Deutsch)

My Comments

A German company has fielded a videoconferencing packaging which is Europe’s answer to what Zoom, Skype and Microsoft Teams is about. This is part of a variety of efforts by European governments and businesses to create credible mainstream IT service alternatives to what the USA and China are offering while respecting European values. One example is efforts by Germany to create a public data-processing cloud that is within that country’s borders as part of leading an effort towards a Europe-wide public cloud.

Alfaview screenshot press image of Alfaview

This is in the form of Alfaview which provides a Zoom-style experience

This company, Alfatraining Bildungszentrum GmbH which is based in Karlsruhe, Baden-Württenburg, Germany, has released the Alfaview video-conferencing platform. Here, this platform places privacy and European sovereignty first in the way it is engineered.

The Alfaview platform’s servers are based in Germany and the company heavily underscores the spirit of European values especially with the GDPR directive. Videoconferencing data is encrypted using TLS/AES256 protocols during conversations. But they can allow the use of non-German services as long as they are in the EU, again underscoring European values. There will also be the ability for people to join the platform from all over the world, thus avoiding a problem with European technologies and services where they have limited useability from areas beyond Europe.

As well, it answers the weaknesses that are associated with the videoconferencing establishment when it comes to offering this kind of service for consumers and small businesses. This encompasses Zoom not being all that secure, Microsoft not maintaining Skype and focusing the Teams videoconferencing package just for big business. As well, Facebook who has come on the bandwagon with Messenger Rooms is not all that respected when it comes to security and privacy.

Alfaview runs natively on Windows, MacOS, Linux (Debian package), iOS and will soon be ported for Android. But they could simply reuse the Linux package as a code base for reaching out to ChromeOS and Android platforms. As well, I am not sure if the iOS version is optimised for the iPads which is something I consider of importance for mobile platforms that have tablet devices because these devices have a strong appeal to multi-party video conferences.

There is a free package for individuals and families to use which provides for one room that has 50 participants. As well, Alfaview has a Free Plus package pitched towards the education and non-profit sector. Here, this one has most of the features that the corporate package has like 40 rooms per account with 50 participants. There is also the ability to run 10 concurrent breakout groups per room.

This is in conjunction to various paid plans for ordinary businesses to buy in to for their videoconferencing needs. Alfaview even provides the ability to offer the software in a “white-label” form for companies to brand themselves.

But what I see of the Alfaview approach is that the Europeans are offering a Zoom-style service respecting their values and competing with what the Silicon Valley establishment are offering.

Why use headphones during that Zoom or Skype video conference?

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Headphones and earphones can improve the sound quality during that Zoom video call

Increasingly most of you are taking part in a multi-party videoconference using Zoom, Skype or similar platforms as part of working or learning from home or keeping in the loop with distant relatives and friends. This has been driven by necessity due to the COVID-19 coronavirus plague and the requirement to stay home to limit the spread of this bug.

But you may find that your correspondents’ audio has that unnecessary echo or reverberation that can make the videocall sound fatiguing and awful. The excessive noise from the reverberation or echo may cause you also to speak louder as a means of dealing with a poor signal-to-noise ratio. As well it can also make a participant harder to understand especially if they have a strong accent that doesn’t cope well with poor signal quality.

JBL E45BT Bluetooth wireless headset

… no matter the kind of headset you use like this JBL Bluetooth headset

This is caused due to latency imposed by the different home-network and Internet connections each party uses and the fact that the sound and vision are being sent around as data packets. As well, most of the parties in the videoconference will typically be using a microphone and set of speakers integrated in or connected to the device for the sound.

Here, the reverberation or echo is heard due to your voice coming out of the participants’ devices’ speakers at a later time thanks to the videoconference setup with its limitations. It can also be magnified if someone is using a speaker setup that is very loud like most desktop speakers or a hi-fi system used as audio output for your computer.

By using headphones during that video conference if you are the only person calling in to the videoconference from your endpoint, you are effectively minimising the echo and reverberation. This is because when a person uses headphones for the videocall, the sound from the other parties is being “funneled” through the headphones exclusively to the device’s user, not likely to be picked up by their device’s microphone.

You will also find that you can hear your participants more easily when you use headphones. This is due to the headphone’s speakers located very close to your ear therefore leading to very minimal audio leakage that can cause further reverberation or echo. Those of you who use active-noise-cancelling headphones may also be at an advantage due to reducing fan or air-conditioning hum interfering with what your callers are saying, allowing you to concentrate better.

Here, any headphones or headset would do, whether they be in-ear, on-ear or over-ear types; or whether they are a wired or wireless setup. For example, if you are using a smartphone or tablet and you have its supplied in-ear wired headset, you can get by with it. Or a pair of good Bluetooth headphones may even do the job better.

This won’t be of use for a group situation where many people like a family or household are joining the videocall from the one device at the one location. It is because they want to talk to the rest of the videoconference as if they are one person. This situation would require the use of the device’s loudspeakers and microphone to be of value.

When you alone are participating in that multi-party videocall and you want to get the best out of it, your headphones may serve you better through that call.

Keeping those videoconferencing platforms relevant beyond the pandemic shutdown

As various jurisdictions around the world are “peeling back” the various stay-at-home restrictions once they are sure they have the coronavirus plague under control in their territory, we could easily see our love for many-to-many videoconferencing wane. It can be more so when the barriers are fully down and we are confident about going out and about, or travelling long-distance.

But these many-to-many video-conferencing platforms like Zoom, Skype and Facebook Messenger Rooms do not need to be ignored once we can go out. It is more about keeping these platforms in continual relevance beyond the workplace and as part of personal and community life.

How can you keep these platforms relevant

Zoom (MacOS) multi-party video conference screenshot

Are these multi-party video conferences going to die out when the all-clear to meet face-to-face and to travel is given?

Family and friends

Do you have members of your family or community who are separated by distance? Here, each family cluster who can meet up at a particular venue in their local area can implement Zoom, Skype or a similar platform to create a wide-area meetup amongst the clusters. It can also extend to remote members of that family or community using these platforms to “call in” and join the occasion.

This situation will be very real with us taking baby steps to getting back to what we used to do, including long-distance travel. Initially long-distance travel will be put off due to fears of newer coronavirus infections on crowded transport modes like economy-class airline cabins along with countries putting off opening their borders and enabling long-distance domestic travel until they are sure that the Covid-19 beast is under control.

If one of us moves to a place that is a long distance away like overseas or interstate, these videoconferencing platforms become even more relevant as a tool to “keep in touch with home”. For example, once that person has settled in to their home, they could use a smartphone, tablet or highly-portable laptop computer to take those of us who are “at home” on a tour of their new premises.

Similarly, an event like an engagement or “wetting the new baby’s head” that is typically celebrated by small groups of relatives or friends who get together to celebrate with a toast to the lucky couple or parents can be taken further. Here, these small clusters could effectively “join up” as part of a larger virtual cluster involving the people whom the occasion is about in order to celebrate together.

Education

For education, distance learning can continue to be made relevant especially for people who can’t attend the class in person. This includes underserved rural and remote communities, people who are in hospital and similar places or itinerant students. There can also be a blended-learning approach that can be taken where a class can both be face-to-face and remote.

Teachers can use videoconferencing to teach classes at the school even if they are home due to illness, caring for relatives or similar situations. It is important for those teachers who place value in curriculum continuity for their students no matter what. Foreign-language teachers who are engaging in personal travel to the country associated with the language they are teaching can use aspects of the trip for curriculum enrichment. With this they could “call in” to their classes at home from that country and engage with the country’s locals or demonstrate its local culture and idiosyncrasies.

A school’s student-exchange program can also benefit from videoconferencing by having remote exchange students able to “call in” to their home school. With this the students could share their experiences and knowledge about the remote location with their “home” class.

To the same extent, a school could link up with one or more guest speakers so that speaker can enrich the class with extra knowledge and experiences. It can even help those schools who can’t afford frequent field trips especially long-distance trips to be able to benefit from knowledge beyond the classroom.

Community Worship

In the worship context, videoconferencing technology can be about allowing mission workers to call their home church and present their report to their home congregation by video link. It can even appeal towards multiple-campus churches who want to be part of these video links.

This technology is still relevant to those small Bible-study / prayer / fellowship groups that are effectively smaller communities within a church’s community. Here, these groups could maintain videoconferencing as a way to allow members separated from the group on a temporary basis to effectively “call in” and participate during the meetups. In some cases where one of these groups becomes too large that they “break up” to smaller groups, they could implement the many-to-many videoconferencing technologies to host larger group meetups on an occasional basis.

Of course there are the key occasions that are part of a religious community’s life like the weddings or funerals. Here, it could be feasible to provide a video link-up so that people who can’t attend the services associated with these events in person due to ill-health or long-distance can view them on line.

As well, the supporting parties associated with these events can become global shared celebrations comprising of multiple local celebration clusters using video-link technology. This is more so with families and communities who are split up by distance but want to celebrate together.

Other community organisations who thrive on being close-knit could easily see the multi-party video-conference as being relevant especially for members who are far-flung from where they usually meet. As well, those who have presence in multiple geographic areas can exploit the likes of Zoom or Skype to make ad-hoc virtual meetings that don’t cost much to organise.

What can be done

Increased support for group videocalling on the big screens

If a mobile-platform vendor has an investment in their mobile platform along with a set-top-box platform (that’s you, Apple with your iOS and Apple TV, and Google with your Android and Chromecast), they could work towards enabling their set-top platform towards group videophone functionality.

Here, this idea would require the smartphone or tablet, which has the contact list and the user-interface for the videocalling platforms like Facetime, Zoom, Skype or Facebook Messenger; to be able to manage the calls while a camera attached to the top of the TV is linked to the set-top box which works with the videocalling platform as a screen, camera, speakers and microphone.

I wrote in a previous article about this idea and the two ways it can be done. One of these is to have a lean software interface in both devices that link the smartphone to the set-top box and have the caller’s face and voice on the TV with the camera linked to the set-top box bringing your face and voice to the caller. The smartphone would then run the videocalling platform, allowing the user to control the call from that device.

The other is to have the videocalling platform software on the set-top box with the ability to use the smartphone to manage accounts, callers and the like from its surface. This is similar to how DIAL is being used by Netflix and YouTube to permit users to “throw” content from smartphones or computers to smart TVs and set-top devices equipped with client software for these platforms.

Conclusion

The videoconferencing platforms of the Zoom, Skype and Facebook Messenger Rooms ilk can be of use beyond the pandemic shutdown, serving as a way to bridge distance and bring communities together.